Peter Guralnick, author of Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke

December 12th, 2005

 

 

JJM  You wrote that Sam told his brother, “If you had all that slick stuff in your hair, the white man was going to think you were slick, he wouldn’t trust you around his daughter.” Sam felt that not appearing threatening to whites was a key to his success, didn’t he?

PG  He felt that was one key to his success, yes, but another aspect was racial pride, pride in who he was and where he had come from. He cut his hair shortly after the huge success of “You Send Me,” stopped wearing it in a process and started wearing it natural. Which, of course, went directly against the prevailing trend of the time. So it was two things, really: racial pride and the idea of presenting himself in a clean-cut way. But in general, Sam always tried to present himself as someone who the white man would not be afraid to invite into his home, because then his records would also be welcome in those homes.

JJM  He also tested limits on segregation quite early. As an example, he drank from a “whites only” drinking fountain in Birmingham early in his career that resulted in a police assault.

PG Yes, and around the same time, he went into a “whites only” park in Memphis while he was there with the QCs, and got picked up by the police.

Both of these incidents represented the same thing, and the disrespect and racial indignities he suffered were a difficult thing for him to contend with all his life, not just when he was eighteen or nineteen years old.

JJM  He also refused to play separate performances for blacks and whites. Was he among the first performers to take this stand?

PG  Sam was an emotional person who not only experienced and thought about things deeply but also read widely, which served to broaden his horizons. He found the conditions under which a person of color lived at that time – whether they were traveling widely as he was, or if they were simply living in a brownstone on the south side of Chicago – increasingly unsupportable. His experience was not unlike that of James Baldwin, someone who was not just a contemporary but who shared much the same experience, as a preacher’s kid, and someone that Sam eventually came to know. The point is, he felt the experience very deeply.

In 1961, Sam refused to play a show in Memphis where the seating was not only divided, but heavily restricted as well. The NAACP called these conditions to the attention of Sam and Clyde McPhatter, who were the headliners on the show, and they refused to play despite threats and intimidation. The specific threats to Sam were that his car would be seized or that he would be thrown in jail, but he and Clyde still refused to play under those conditions.

JJM Did he have concerns about how his stand on an issue like this could potentially alienate his white audience?

PG  Yes, he cared very much about that. This was a situation where his concerns as a human being simply overwhelmed the way in which he approached his role as an entertainer. He was always concerned about alienating a substantial part of his audience, and some of the early pop work he recorded – like “You Send Me,” for example – were bleached-out versions of his gospel style, and this was done very intentionally. The majority of his early hits – whether on Keen or RCA – are essentially inoffensive novelty songs that feature very little of the gospel sound on which his style is based.

It wasn’t until he recorded “Bring It On Home To Me” in 1962 that he began to restore some of that explicit gospel sound to his recordings. I mean, it was always there in his live performance, because he continued to play predominantly on the “chitlin’ circuit.” But at the same time, he calculated the effect that his music had and attempted to record it in a way that would appeal to the widest possible audience. His idea was to appeal on a universal level without selling out, but you can see the calculation and the extent to which his own sense of dignity was offended in Memphis – measured by the fact he was willing to take a stand in a situation where he risked serious financial consequences and the alienation of a large part of his audience.

An interesting footnote to the Memphis story is that in its immediate aftermath, the next R&B act to play Memphis was Ray Charles, who had just done a similar thing in Augusta, Georgia, where he refused to play for a segregated audience. So that when Ray Charles came to Ellis Auditorium that summer, it was the first fully integrated show to play there. This is one of the few instances where you can point to the direct result that came out of that kind of protest.

JJM  Sam Cooke was incredibly likable, but there is a side of him that is very hard to understand. He had great concern for so many people, yet treated his wife like hell. To put it mildly, he was a terrible husband.

PG  I’m not sure that Barbara would say that she was a model wife, either.

JJM  True, but he was the one who asked her to marry him, and this was after he had already fathered children with other women at a very young age. Why did he decide to marry Barbara?

PG  You can see the how much she loved him from childhood on, and the way that she continued to try to find ways to reunite Sam with her and their daughter, Linda. But nothing seemed to succeed until she finally announced that she was about to move in with someone else, and then to her great surprise Sam finally proposed!

I’m not trying to defend Sam’s actions, but I would say that this is just one more example of the contradictions that exist in human behavior. In every one of us – sometimes in more extreme forms than others – there are elements of ourselves that are definitely at odds with the elements that we would choose to represent us. In Sam’s case, this was certainly one of them. But I should point out that it is more rather than less characteristic of the entertainer’s life, black or white, sacred or secular.

JJM  Yes, and the preachers as well. The Reverend C.L. Franklin, for example, had similar issues.

PG Sam wrote an almost heartbreaking idealization of domestic life in “Nothing Can Change This Love,” a song that appears to present a perfect kind of love yet is totally undercut by the way he presents it. In a way it’s all about the distance between real life and the idealized version. I’m not trying to defend Sam’s behavior, but I think he was genuinely torn. He wanted that idealized domesticity, but it was certainly not the way he led his life or the way that he treated Barbara, and at the end of his life, I don’t think he honestly knew which way to go. While he had a commitment to a sense of family – particularly to his daughter Linda – his life and Barbara’s were certainly going in opposite directions.

JJM  This is in the category of psycho-babble, but isn’t it also possible that he had issues with Barbara because his father didn’t approve of her?

PG  No, that is not where I would go with it. Sam’s father was very stern – but also very fair – and his stern side led all of his children to rebel against him in one way or another. But I don’t think that had anything to do with Sam’s marriage.

In most respects, Sam had a pretty sure sense of where he wanted to go, but not in his relationship with Barbara. I really do think that he retained a love for her right up to the end, but it wasn’t the kind of love that could sustain itself in real terms. So I’m not sure he knew exactly what to do. I think he was definitely exploring the idea of divorce, but, you know, it was like so many marriages that continue because neither party is quite prepared to leave, and I would say that is pretty much where Sam and Barbara were at the end. From the standpoint of who wanted what, I think Barbara would have given up virtually anything for Sam’s love and approval, for a place in his life.

JJM Another interesting aspect of this story was the direction taken by Allen Klein, a brilliant strategist and business person who entered into Sam’s life and negotiated a groundbreaking agreement on his behalf with RCA Records. You wrote that the deal was “virtually guaranteeing a label commitment that no R&B artist other than Ray Charles had ever received.” Was this deal a template that other artists and labels would subsequently follow?

PG  I think so, yes, although I am not the person to describe it because I never studied it enough to have a definitive answer. But Allen certainly sought to follow it in a variety of ways, including his subsequent work with the Rolling Stones and Beatles.

JJM  Basically, he set up an independent record company that was distributed by RCA. I was frankly surprised that this deal was the first of its kind in the record business…

PG  It may not have been. Somebody told me that Paul Anka’s deal with RCA – which was a production deal – provided a precedent for this and was the reason that RCA could agree to it, although I could never confirm that. Even if there was a model for it, though, I don’t know of another deal quite like the one Klein worked out for Sam, just like I don’t know of another deal like the one Ray Charles had with ABC.

JJM  The deal seemed to be a huge risk for the RCA executive, Joe D’Imperio, to take.

PG  I would say that it was done on the basis of D’Imperio’s belief in Sam. An interesting thing about the way in which Allen Klein works is that, much like Colonel Parker, his dealings were always based on personal belief, long-term commitments, and close associations. The people he dealt with thirty and forty years ago continue to be the people with whom he deals today. He never could have made the deal with Bob Yorke, the RCA executive who, according to Sam, was not returning his phone calls at the time. When Yorke was replaced, D’Imperio came in, and he and Allen hit it off from the start, because they both believed in Sam. Allen was indefatigable in his advancing of Sam, and if D’Imperio had not been receptive to the approach he was advocating, he very likely would have taken Sam to Columbia Records.

JJM Near the end of his life, Sam made a triumphant appearance at the  Copa – which was quite a different result from the first time he appeared there. At the time, he was talking about his interest in continuing to sing, but also making some business ambitions known as well…

PG  People talk about bifurcated personalities, but in Sam’s case you would have to talk about trifurcated, quadrifurcated – or even twenty-furcated! His ambitions seemed to go in every direction. I always remember how my mother used to tell me when I was a kid that I couldn’t do everything, and I was highly indignant, because – why not? All these years later I’m inclined to agree with her, although I guess I’m still a little bit indignant. Sam, though, was someone who continued to believe he could do everything, from playing the Copa and Vegas and making movies to running his own record company. His announced intention at the end of his life was to get off the “chitlin’ circuit.” He dismissed his band and began to cut back on his personal appearances, restricting them to the supper club circuit, and he had also signed a movie contract with 20th Century Fox.

Dick Clark asked him at one point what would give him the greatest satisfaction, and he said it would be if all the artists he was associated with had hits. That was part of his plan: to concentrate more and more on SAR Records, the company he and J.W. Alexander owned, focusing in particular on the Valentinos – Bobby Womack and his brothers – who he believed had the potential to become big pop stars. But at the same time, he was going in all these other directions as well. The last night of his life, he had dinner at Martoni’s with Al Schmitt, his A&R man at RCA Records, and they talked about a gut-bucket blues album he wanted to make, along the lines of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker. So he was not going to limit himself!

JJM It is believed that Sam was killed during the early morning hours in the office of a Los Angeles motel. He struggled with the motel manager, Bertha Lee Franklin, after being robbed by the woman he was in the motel with. Franklin shot Sam as he apparently lunged at her. Were you able to uncover any new information about the circumstances of his death?

PG  Not really. I had access to the private investigator’s report, which had never been available before, and while a good number of additional details were either brought out or confirmed as a result of this access, there didn’t seem much doubt that the official story of his death was fairly close to the truth. The way it happened was one of the ways in which Sam led his life. It wasn’t a contradiction, in terms of either where or how it happened. Sam was enraged because of the way he felt he had been “played,” and he just wasn’t going to accept that kind of treatment. All of the circumstances of his death conformed to the view of virtually every person I spoke with to whom he was close – I mean, it conformed to their view of Sam. As J.W. said, it was just a tragic waste. At the same time, within the broader context of the black community as a whole, almost no one believed he died that way – and they still don’t – because Sam was such a shining light. It couldn’t have happened that way because it shouldn’t have happened that way.

JJM  Allen Klein suggested that Sam was not killed by an act of adultery, but was a victim of a violent crime, which is the view many people wanted perpetuated.

PG  Allen’s point was simply to shift the emphasis for a variety of reasons – public relations, for one – but also because he loved Sam and truly believed that Sam was not so much the perpetrator as the victim.

JJM  He had an awful lot of alcohol that night…

PG  Again, you can see a similar reaction when he was turned away from the motel in Shreveport, so I don’t know that alcohol is the answer so much as Sam’s rage at the idea of being treated in this manner, of being disrespected in this way. In Shreveport he absolutely refused to leave, he just kept screaming at the night manager of the motel. His brother Charles, who was a very tough guy, was telling Sam they had to go. So was S.R. Crain, his road manager and the founder of the Soul Stirrers. Barbara was telling him they needed to get out of there because these people were going to kill him, but he just said, “They’re not going to kill me. I’m Sam Cooke.” Her reply was, “Honey, to them you’re just another nigger.”

The point is that in that situation he just flashed, and while I don’t mean to compare the seriousness or gravity of the two situations, he flashed at the Hacienda Motel in pretty much the same way. His father had taught him, his father had taught all his children, never let anyone disrespect you on the basis of color, economics, or anything else, and Sam always stood up to people, he always stood up for himself on that basis. There were numerous other instances where you could say his behavior was reckless in that regard. If he had been killed in Shreveport, he would have been seen, correctly, as a martyr of the civil rights movement – but it would have been for much the same reason.

 

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“It didn’t matter who he was up against, because he didn’t do it as a competitor. All these Baptist sisters would sit down at the front, and they would scream. We would laugh at them because we were kids, but they were serious. They would yell things like, ‘Sing, honey. Sing, child,’ and I often wondered what was going on in some of their minds. Maybe I didn’t need to know. But you know what? Sam never allowed it to distract him. If he saw he had your attention, he could sing directly to you and almost be whispering. And when he got through, you would feel that he was talking to no one else in the room but you. [But then] the whole building would go up in smoke!”

– Mable John, sister of “Little” Willie John

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Just For You

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Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke

by Peter Guralnick

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About Peter Guralnick

JJM  Who was your childhood hero?

PG  Probably both my father and grandfather, for a variety of reasons — mostly because they represented a kind of certainty, uprightness and character, as well as a sense of exploration and an openness to self-expression that I very much admired.

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Peter Guralnick is widely regarded as the nation’s preeminent writer on twentieth-century American popular music. His books include Feel Like Going Home, Lost Highway, Sweet Soul Music, Searching for Robert Johnson, the novel Nighthawk Blues, and a highly acclaimed two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love.

 

Sam Cooke products at Amazon.com

Peter Guralnick products at Amazon.com

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This interview took place on December 5, 2005

 

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If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Arthur Kempton, author of Boogaloo, and Dixie Hummingbirds biographer Jerry Zolten

 

 

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Other Jerry Jazz Musician interviews

# Text from publisher.

 

 

 

Thanks for this website. Very balanced and informative. A pleasure to visit. I think Sam would approve.

Posted by Mick Bradley | 2006-05-16 04:15:08

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